What to Watch for in Tonight’s Clinton-Trump Debate

This blog was originally published on Forbes as What To Watch For In Tonight’s Clinton-Trump Debate on Monday, September 26, 2016.

The operative word above is “watch.” Despite all the media commentary inundating the media about what the candidates should, should not, or will say tonight in their debate, their greatest impact will be how they look—how they appear to the electorate with their physical presence and presentation.

This dynamic was expressed by James Fallows, the veteran national correspondent for The Atlantic who has been writing about politics—particularly presidential debates—since he served as President Carter’s chief speechwriter. In his current article previewing tonight’s debate, Mr. Fallows writes, “The most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.”

Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, agrees in her Friday column: “Whatever Clinton and Trump do say, Monday night will likely be more about watching than listening — and who these two are seen to be.”

There is ample precedent these views:

In the first ever televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon —56 years ago tonight—JFK’s patrician manner stood in such sharp contrast to Nixon’s darting eyes, five o’clock shadow, and perspiring chin that, in the public opinion polls, television viewers thought that Kennedy had won, while radio listeners thought that Nixon had won.

In the 2000 Bush-Gore debate, Al Gore was such a heavy favorite that the issue of The Atlantic with a Fallows debate preview had on its cover a caricature of Gore baring feral fangs.

But Gore blew it when the television reaction shots caught him repeatedly making condescending sighs, derisive head-shakes, scornful frowns, and disdainful eye-rolls at his opponent.

In the first Obama-Romney debate of 2012, the potent rhetorical mojo that Obama had brandished up to and throughout his 2008 campaign and first term, suddenly vanished, prompting MSNBC’s Chris Matthews MSNBC to lament, “Where was Obama tonight?… I don’t know what he was doing out there. He had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it.”

So what can we expect to see tonight when the candidates face each other at Hofstra University?

Hillary Clinton, who has been widely characterized as cold and wooden—particularly in contrast with her husband’s celebrated conversational style—summed up her challenge herself in an interview with a popular website:

“… it’s hard work to present yourself in the best possible way. You have to communicate in a way that people say: ‘OK, I get her.’ And that can be more difficult for a woman…. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’”

In a prior Forbes blog, I wrote about the physical aspects of Donald Trump’s presentation style in his earlier debates and rallies. Here is how those mannerisms could impact tonight’s debate:

  • Trump’s eyes scan rather than connect with his audiences. If he plays to the audience at Hofstra University rather than look at his opponent or the moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, he might evoke a “Tricky Dicky” image.
  • Trump points. Pointing is a threatening gesture. In a male-female encounter, this can work against him as it did to a former Clinton opponent. In 2000, when she ran against Rick Lazio for the New York Senate seat, he crossed the stage during their debate to demand that she sign a pledge against soft money. The public invective that followed Lazio’s move characterized him as a bully.
  • Trump clutches the lectern, hunching his shoulders. The bully image again.
  • Trump makes faces. He has been widely characterized as being temperamental and this would reinforce that image.

Kathleen Parker made one other interesting point: “Is anyone really going to change his or her mind based on what the candidates say Monday as opposed to what they said last week? Trump lovers are set in stone, as are … Clinton supporters.”

Given the exceedingly polarized state of our political affairs, perhaps we should watch tonight with the sound turned off but, given the unusually high unfavorable ratings of each candidate, the estimated 15% undecided voters, the nearly 10% interest in third party candidates, we should watch and listen as we never have before.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as What To Watch For In Tonight’s Clinton-Trump Debate on Monday, September 26, 2016.